Having begun a week of operagoing in Italy with La Scala’s new production of Lucia di Lammermoor, which I cover in a concert note in the forthcoming June issue of The New Criterion, I traveled south to Naples and the Teatro di San Carlo, the oldest of Europe’s major opera houses. It opened in 1737, when the Neapolitan School of composers, upon which the tradition of modern opera rests, was thriving. I caught the last performance (on April 29) of a revival of the theater’s 2005 production of Die Walküre, the second opera of Wagner’s monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen. One attraction for this performance was the role debut as Wotan for the British baritone Christopher Maltman, who will sing the part of the chief god in a new cycle at Covent Garden, London, commencing with Das Rheingold in the fall. But the performance had much else to make it worthy of recommendation.

Unusually, the Naples Die Walküre is not part of a fully produced cycle at the theater but a standalone staging. This is the Ring opera with the strongest human interest, as it relates the tale of incestuous love between Siegmund and Sieglinde and the poignant severing of ties between Wotan and his beloved valkyrie daughter Brünnhilde. Although directed by Federico Tiezzi, the production is known mainly for its simple abstract sets by the painter and sculptor Giulio Paolini, which, together with Giovanna Buzzi’s costumes, won an Abbiati Prize. Prominent is a metal structure resembling a massive jungle gym in which, during Act II, rocks are exhibited as if in a museum (stage directions specify a “wild rocky pass”); picture frames, initially empty but later enclosing sculptures, add to the sense that the visual arts also form a part of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, in bringing the mythological subject to life. Adding an uncommon elegance to Hunding’s dwelling, Louis XV–upholstered furniture suggests that the decorative arts were involved as well. 

A scene from Die Walküre at the Teatro di San Carlo, Naples. Photo: Luciano Romano.

Some glosses on the action seen in other productions of Die Walküre were present here, such as the actual appearance of slain heroes brought by the valkyries to Valhalla for defense. The costumes gave the inhabitants of Valhalla a measure of dignity that was welcome, given the caricatures to which current productions often reduce them. Overall, the action flowed smoothly and compellingly, even as the characters’ movement was sometimes dependent on the production’s emphasis on visual aesthetics. Even when widely separated, Siegmund and Sieglinde signaled their affinity for each other—recklessly at times, given the presence of the latter’s husband, Hunding. Wotan and Brünnhilde debated the latter’s fate on symmetrically positioned staircases.

Maltman’s portrayal of Wotan was a personal triumph. A few years ago the baritone, known especially for his Mozart, set his sights on the heavier roles of Verdi and Wagner. Here he proved that his confidence was justified. The voice carried beautifully in the theater, one of Europe’s largest, and his excellent diction proved essential in animating Wotan’s long Act II narration. Maltman’s legato singing often had a bel canto smoothness that made his farewell to Brünnhilde particularly moving. The presence of Jonas Kaufmann testifies to the ability of the Teatro di San Carlo to attract topflight singers. His stirring Siegmund has held up well, the cries to his absent father “Wälse, Wälse!” particularly ringing. John Relyea’s thunderous bass contributed to a malevolent Hunding.

Among the women, the standout was the Lithuanian soprano Vida Miknevičiūtė, who contributed an impassioned, bright-voiced Sieglinde blessed with radiant high notes. And she was exemplary in looks and acting. Okka von der Damerau, who until recently billed herself as a mezzo-soprano, displayed a substantial, well-rounded voice as Brünnhilde; high notes were there, if not always ideally attacked. Varduhi Abrahamyan, though fluttery of voice, argued compellingly as Fricka. Dan Ettinger, the San Carlo’s music director, drew fine playing from the orchestra, but tempos were on the slow side.

A scene from Die Walküre at the Teatro di San Carlo, Naples. Photo: Luciano Romano.

This Die Walküre is a welcome sign that the San Carlo has bounced back from the pandemic. But in Italy opera and politics are often intertwined. The theater is currently involved in an administrative wrangle as the result of efforts by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and the council of ministers to impose a retirement age of seventy on foreign heads of opera houses, a limit already applicable to Italians. Stéphane Lissner, the Frenchman who heads the San Carlo and previously ran the Paris Opera and La Scala, turned seventy in January and reportedly plans to fight the council’s decree; if unsuccessful, he would be succeeded by Carlos Fuortes, the CEO of the Italian broadcasting company RAI and a Meloni ally. Also affected is the head of La Scala, Dominique Meyer, aged sixty-eight, who is likewise French and could be forced to leave his post prematurely. 

Under Lissner’s leadership, ticket sales are higher—in contrast to many U.S. opera houses—than they were before the pandemic, buoyed by a surge in tourism, according to a spokesman. The recent announcement of next season’s repertory of twelve operas, weighted heavily toward Italian works from Don Giovanni to Turandot, further indicates a return to normality. Among the new productions is Ponchielli’s La Gioconda starring Anna Netrebko.

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